In Caracas, students shame OAS with peaceful protest
Massive and bloody street protests have roiled Venezuela for two months. But this weekend, outside the Caracas office of the Organization of American States, there were no street barricades or massive marches protesting what Venezuela-style socialism has wrought: out-of-control crime, food shortages, and a dysfunctional economy. No tear gas or rubber bullets were fired by Venezuela's repressive security forces or Cuban agents and goons. No gun-toting Chavista thugs showed up on motorcycles -- not yet anyway.
This was the site of a peaceful protest. Hundreds of university students remained hunkered down among scores of tents pitched outside the OAS's office in Chacao -- an upscale municipality in metropolitan Caracas, and an opposition stronghold.
The headline-grabbing bit of political theater started last Monday and coincided with parallel protests outside the embassies of Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador and Nicaragua. Oil barrels were lined up outside each embassy as students carried protest signs and unfurled banners.
Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador and Nicaragua, like 18 other left-leaning countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, have remained silent over Venezuela's brutal crackdown against massive anti-government protests that have raged for nearly two months -- leaving at least 37 people dead and hundreds injured. Most were students. Hugo Chávez, a firebrand socialist, used sweetheart oil deals to make friends and build anti-American alliances soon after becoming president in 1999.
The students are demanding a formal OAS inquiry into Venezuela's rights abuses, and they were protesting the shameful meeting recently held at the OAS's headquarters in Washington, D.C., where Venezuelan opposition lawmaker María Corina Machado got a cold shoulder from most OAS members. They had no interest in hearing her discuss Venezuela's abuses even though they have been condemned by rights groups.
The OAS's mission includes promoting peace and democracy; yet its members argued for hours about whether Machado, a 46-year-old engineer, should or should not be allowed to speak. Coming to her defense, Panama eventually made her a temporary part of its delegation -- a procedural maneuver it hoped would allowed her to discuss Venezuela's abuses in a formal and public session. But Venezuela's left-leaning allies ultimately prevailed, voting only to hear her during a private session reserved for ad hoc matters. The vote was 22 to 11.
Keeping the session private was unusual for an organization claiming to support transparency; whose charter allows for sanctioning rights abusers within its ranks. Yet Venezuela's OAS member Carmen Luisa Velasquez defended the closed session and, according to The Wall Street Journal, provoked loud laughter when explaining to audience members: "With total transparency: in privacy."
It was an Orwellian remark, the sort of language you might expect in a communist state like Cuba, where language is turned on its head to serve a corrupt state. Machado said as much, blaming the behavior of the OAS on the influence of Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro and Cuba. Under Maduro -- a former bus driver and union leader -- Cuba has gained an even bigger role in Venezuela than it had during Hugo Chávez's days, say many observers. Chávez died of cancer a year ago.
"They are afraid of the truth," Machado told reporters after the OAS meeting. "They don't want the truth to come out about the massive repression taking place in Venezuela. They don't want it to be known in the world and in our America."
Machado is hardly alone in speaking out against Cuba. In recent months, its growing influence in Venezuela has provoked anti-Cuban protest marches; anti-Cuban graffiti ("Cuba Out!); and Cuba has been a frequent topic on social media. Venezuela's twitter users -- when not sometimes blocked by Venezuela's Internet censors -- have buzzed with accounts of Cuban goons and military equipment playing a part in the brutal crack-down of the student-led protest movement. Cuba receives an estimated 110,000 barrels a day of Venezuela in exchange for varieties of technical support, including the use of Cuban doctors in medical clinics set up in low-income areas. Cuba has long regarded Venezuela as a prize, having sponsored guerrilla insurgencies there in the 1960s. Recently, El Nuevo Herald, sister paper of The Miami Herald, documented the extensive role that Cuba's security forces are playing in Venezuela, based on interviews with ex-intelligence agents in Venezuela.
The Cubanization of Venezuela is not only reflected in the repression which the OAS doesn't want to hear about, but in the Maduro administration's harassment and marginalization of opposition leaders -- a strategy right out of the Castro brothers' playbooks. After addressing the OAS, for instance, Machado was called a traitor by some Venezuelans lawmakers. The leader of Venezuela's congress, Diosdado Cabello, even said her OAS appearance had violated the constitution; and so she had lost her seat in the legislature and was no longer immune from being prosecuted for allegedly provoking violent protests.
And earlier this week, security agents arrested one opposition mayor, and another was sentenced to ten months in prison. Both were accused of inciting rebellion by having failed to dismantle street barricades set up by anti-government protesters. This follows last month's arrest of opposition leader Leopoldo López, a former mayor, for allegedly inciting protesters; or what President Maduro claimed was a call to murder, arson, and terrorism -- charges Amnesty International called a "politically motivated attempt to silence dissent. "To this day, no evidence of any kind has been presented," López wrote in an Op-Ed in The New York Times.
Machado, for her part, is no stranger to Chavista thuggishness. Last April, Chavista lawmakers attacked her in congress and broke her nose.
OAS members who supported Panama's effort to give Machado's a public hearing were: Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, United States, Guatemala, Honduras, México, Paraguay, and Perú. Among those opposing Panama's effort: Brazil, Nicaragua, Uruguay, El Salvador, Argentina, Venezuela, Bolivia and the Caribbean island-states minus Barbados, which abstained.
The Obama administration has spoken out against Venezuela's rights abuses, but it has yet to impose sanctions or take other actions. While the OAS meeting was discouraging for U.S. interests and democracy supporters, it did have an upside, as pointed out by Venezuela analyst Francisco Toro at Caracas Chronicles. "Nearly twice as many people live in the eleven countries that voted against the Maduro regime than in countries that voted with it. Out of the 17 Spanish speaking countries in OAS, 9 voted against the Maduro regime, just 8 for it."
Machado reportedly took this video with her to explain what has been happening in Venezuela: